A sermon by Stephen Snelling
Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44
Happy New Year! It’s Advent Sunday the first day of the Church’s year. Like all new year’s days we look forward and backward and it is a time for resolutions!
But the church year does not start with something that has happened, such as Christ's birth or resurrection - something from the past that becomes present once again. The church year starts, instead, with a strange emptiness, a strange sense of expectation. The church year starts with waiting and wonder.
First of all we look backward and remember that the whole point of our being here is that we are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, The child that was born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago on that night when Before Christ became Anno Domini. In remembering we look forward to Christmas and the celebrations that surround the birth of Jesus.
Now you might be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is already here – the lights have been on in Regent Street and Oxford Street since early November, Bluewater and Lakeside are open until 11 in the evenings to make it easier for you to buy your Christmas gifts – I haven’t heard Bing Crosby singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” yet but I’m sure that I will soon.
Of course Advent helps us to look forward to Christmas. But just as importantly it gives us the space and time to think about and to prepare ourselves for the return of Christ to this world – when he comes to claim us for his own.
It’s important to remember that after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven the early Christians expected that the second coming would be sometime fairly soon. Jesus predicted the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem earlier in the same chapter as our reading – in fact it happened in AD70.
Although Jesus says that even he does not know the day and hour of his return the disciples on hearing the prediction of the fall of the Temple immediately think of the second coming and the end of the age. In their minds the events became inseparable and consequently they began to speak of them as imminent.
The disciples and followers of Jesus hoped that the second coming would be soon – they didn’t want to wait. I remember when credit cards were first introduced that one of the advertising slogans for the Access card was “it takes the waiting out of wanting” - today waiting has become something that we dislike. Only a few years ago we had to wait nine months to know the gender of a baby. Now the mother just has a scan and the secret is revealed. Not so long ago we used to send our photos off to be developed and wait expectantly for their return. Now we have gone digital and the result is available instantly. We shop whenever we want without waiting for the shops to open. On the Internet, we can shop in the middle of the night and pay instantly by PayPal or credit card; we even have a bigger and better 24 hour Tesco at Riverhead.
Email and mobile phones bring instant communication. The instantaneousness of life means that our expectations are raised. If we can't have it now, then we don't want it. If service seems slow in a shop or a restaurant, we leave. We always look for the shortest queue at the checkout and, if we do have to wait, we consider it such a complete waste of time that we shut down our mental activity and go into stand-by mode. 'Life's too short', we say. Too short for what? Too short for waiting, that's for sure. And what's wrong with that? Why should we wait?
To have it made in today's society means not waiting, not wondering. Making it means you are too busy to wait, too important. Making it means you are too smart to wonder, too adult. We want it all now. We find it impossible to wait for anyone or anything.
But then we look forward again and we do wonder don’t we? We know that Jesus said that he will come again and we wonder when it will be. Will it be today as we’re sitting down to lunch? Or tomorrow when we’re digging the garden or doing the shopping? Or next week? Or next year? When? Lord, when?
William Barclay in his commentary on this passage tells a story about an apprentice devil who is sent to earth to deceive mankind. Satan asks the little devil how he plans to go about his mission. The apprentice devil says he will try to persuade humans that there is no God. But Satan says experience has taught him that this ploy simply doesn’t work. The devil then suggests that he could discredit any kind of belief in hell. Satan commends him on his idea but insists that this approach wouldn’t be a winner either. Satan, however, is taken with the apprentice devil’s third idea and tells him to go ahead with his plan – which is simply to tell mankind that there is plenty of time.
And we do think that we have plenty of time to prepare for that day don’t we? And so we might have if we are talking about the measurement of time that we are used to. The sort of time that has a past, a present and a future. Time that has a beginning and an end.
But in the bible there are two kinds of time. The first kind is that which has to do with events in world history. The word used for it is chronos in Greek – and that is where we get the word chronology. The other kind of time in the Bible is called kairos, and this is God’s time. This is a time which humans cannot manipulate or with which they cannot interfere.
Jesus Christ being born during the reign of Caesar Augustus is a matter of historical fact, and this is the chronos time of the Incarnation but the Incarnation happens in God’s kairos time as well. It was God’s plan from eternity and human beings had no control over it.
When Christ comes again it will be in God’s kairos time – nobody knows the day nor the hour. Indeed it will be an hour we do not expect. But Jesus does tell us that it will happen at a time when people are unprepared – just as it was before the flood in Noah’s time. This isn’t to say in any way that Jesus is against us living a normal life – but rather against indifference to God’s plan, and the kairos moments of gracious opportunity given to each of us.
I’m reminded of a sketch from the 1960’s satire “Beyond the Fringe” called “Now is the end of the world” Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller are all sitting on a mountain top dressed in loin cloths and waiting for the end of the world. They speculate as to what will happen and then they realize that there is only thirty seconds to go – they count down and then – silence! Nothing happens! “Never mind lads,” says Peter Cook “same time tomorrow!”
But he will come! And what are we going to do while we are waiting? Are we going to be like those people who scoffed at Noah when he built his ark? They just got on with life – they ate, they drank, they had parties, they got married, they had children. Even when Noah had finished his ark they carried on just as before. They weren’t looking for God. They were only looking for the next thing that was going to happen. And they weren’t ready when the flood came – they were swept away. We have all seen the images of natural disasters – the tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti, the flooding in Cumbria and Cornwall – we have seen the results of the unexpected.
So what should we do while we’re waiting? Waiting for the wonder that is Jesus Christ. Well we need to keep on with our ordinary everyday lives because unless we do the world would grind to a halt. But there are things that we can do – the sort of active waiting that we should be doing as Christians. St Paul gives us a list of dos and don’ts in this morning’s Epistle and in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us that we should feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick and visit those in prison – we should be compassionate towards those less fortunate than ourselves.
So, that apprentice devil in the story may have chosen the best way of deceiving mankind after all. Making us believe there is plenty of time. So as our New Year’s resolution let us follow the advice of St. Paul from today’s epistle which tells us that we are nearer to the second coming that when we first became believers and that we should cast of the works of darkness and put on the armour of light To engage with God in his time, rather than the God of our earthly timekeeping.